By Jude Woodward
On Thursday 23 June the electorate in Britain voted narrowly – by fewer than 1.3m votes, that is less than 2 per cent of the population – for a lie. They voted for the lie that if Britain came out of the EU it could maintain all the benefits of EU membership – free trade in Europe, the leading role of London, all the protections that came with EU legislation for human rights, the environment, for working conditions etc – without the downsides. These downsides were presented as ‘uncontrolled immigration’, loss of ‘sovereignty’ and a subsidy to the EU that could otherwise be spent on the NHS.
Both sides of this false equation were lies. Britain will not achieve better free trade terms in Europe than the Nordic countries that are not in the EU, and probably worse. So that means maintaining free movement of labour at the very least, and will likely involve a similar level of net contribution to the EU as is paid currently, without the benefits of EU investments in Britain.
An economic and political crisis began as soon as the result became clear. The value of the pound fell 8% as the initial results were announced – a greater fall than in the 2008 financial crisis. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced a new referendum on Scottish independence. Similarly Sinn Fein has argued that the population in Northern Ireland should not be forced out of the EU, having voted to remain, and has called for a border poll
There is a deepening crisis in the Torty Party. Cameron has resigned, so there will be a leadership battle. Polls indicate a majority of Tory voters opposed EU membership. But only a minority of the government backed Leave, so there will be a continuing crisis in the governing Conservative Party over the next two years or so throughout the negotiations with the EU.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, has made it clear that there will be no concessions to Britain in the Brexit negotiations: and why would Germany or France take any other view? In fact it is unlikely that any other country – including Greece – will leave the EU on the back of this vote in Britain, but if you were Angela Merkel would you take the risk? Concessions to Britain might make it look an attractive option, so there will not be any. The Leave advocates want to maintain free trade with the EU, which will have to be negotiated with an EU in no mood to offer concessions.
Once Article 50 (of the Treaty on European Union) is invoked Britain will then begin the process of applying to leave the EU. That will then reveal the truth and expose the lies about the terms for Britain’s exit from the EU. Cameron made clear in his resignation speech that he will not apply for Article 50. Leading Brexiters like Gove are hinting they will delay invoking Article 50 till the Autumn, because they have no coherent plan for EU withdrawal and fear the truth coming out about the deal Britain is likely to get from the EU.
Moreover preparing for exit means literally hundreds of pieces of legislation will have to go to Parliament to replace law that is currently covered by EU legislation. This will quickly expose how the Tory Party uses exit to undermine workers’ rights, environmental constraints on business, human rights legislation and much, much else.
Given that the country voted by a narrow margin for a lie, in the interests of democracy it has to have the opportunity to vote on the truth before an irrevocable step is taken. The final terms of a Brexit deal must be put to a new referendum before they are implemented.
Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, should pledge now to fight for this. It should say that the country voted for a lie, and it will do everything it can to ensure that it takes the eventual decision on the basis of the truth i.e. the real Brexit terms on offer. This is not the same as when other countries have rerun referendums simply because they have gone against the views of a government. This referendum was not on a proposed EU treaty whose terms were clear and the electorate rejected them. This was a vote on a proposed new treaty, the British exit agreement, of which the terms are unknown and lies and fabrications were told about what its terms might be. This would not be a rerun of the same referendum but a referendum on an actual proposed agreement with the EU. If the vote was still to leave when the actual terms are known, then so be it. But it is democratic to put this to the country.
In arguing for this Labour would have the support of the SNP, most of the Northern Irish parties, a large chunk of the Tory Party, the Lib Dems and the Greens in Parliament, as well as all but a handful of Labour MPs. That is an overwhelming majority of the House of Commons, so if Corbyn made this pledge Labour could ensure it happens.
This would also shore up Jeremy Corbyn and the left in the leadership of the Labour Party, which now faces the most substantial challenge from the right than at any point since he was elected.
The reason the right thinks it can move against Corbyn now is straightforward. The vast majority of Labour Party members, including virtually all the trade unions, are strong supporters of EU membership. Almost all Labour members are deeply disappointed about the outcome of the referendum, and believe it will be very bad for working people in this country. While the left opposed Maastricht and joining the Euro, since the mid-1980s support for actually leaving the EU has divided even the hard left within the Party. Only a tiny minority of Labour Party members and affiliates supported the leave campaign. The right hopes therefore that this is the moment to isolate Corbyn by blaming him for the referendum result.
The membership does not want to hear that that they have to give up on their deeply held views in favour of staying in the EU. They believe, correctly, that the arguments that swayed many voters were false. And the huge majority of Labour members will back a leadership that proposes to continue, not give up, the fight to stay in Europe. If Corbyn puts himself at the head of this fight, as well as keeping up the pressure on the Tories on austerity, he will quell his critics and reinvigorate his support.
The referendum result was only the beginning of a political process that is leading to crisis for the Tories and will churn through British politics. It is only the beginning of the fight about the future orientation of Britain to the EU, whatever the right may want to claim that the referendum ended the debate. The debate hasn’t stopped and the fight hasn’t stopped. This is only the beginning